Few will say it, but the facts are indisputable: America’s war in Afghanistan has failed. There comes a time when persisting in a lost cause amounts to foolishness, indeed irresponsibility. That time has arrived.
Washington’s minimal goals were to vanquish the Taliban, root out Al Qaeda and build a stable, effective government whose army and police would eventually fight the Taliban independently and successfully while maintaining law and order across the land. These objectives have not been meet.
Not for want of effort, mind you. The evidence leaves no doubt that the United States has made an enormous effort.
Let’s begin with the investment in time.
Nearly fifteen years and counting, the war in Afghanistan has become America’s longest. Airstrikes against the Taliban government, undertaken along with the British, commenced in October 2001. American ground troops, 1,300 in number, arrived there in November 2001. By 2010, there were one hundred thousand. A steady cutback started in 2011, pursuant to a decision by President Obama, though some 9,800 still remain, despite the responsibility for fighting the Taliban and securing the country having been transferred to the Afghans in June 2013.
American soldiers may no longer be in the thick of day-to-day battle, but they continue to advise and train Afghan security forces, and to conduct “counterterrorism” operations. Moreover, when Afghan units are besieged, as happened most recently in Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgun province, they are forced to call in American airstrikes.
Clearly, then, the claim that not enough time has been invested can’t stand.
Yes, the United States and its allies have helped forge the new 343,900-person Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which includes the 185,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANA). Yet after nearly a decade and a half of training, the Afghan military and police still cannot hold their own against the Taliban, which has far fewer fighters (25,000-30,000 being the maximum estimate) and much less firepower. The balance on the battlefield has become far less favorable to the Afghan government since 2013. (More on that later.)
The financial ledger points to an equally impressive effort.
The figure that typically emerges in estimates of what the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have cost is $2 trillion. As Linda Bilmes has shown, that sum results from confining the calculations to military expenditures narrowly defined. If current and long-term costs created by health care for the troops—many have suffered serious mental and physical injuries—death benefits to military families, and interest owed for money borrowed to fund the campaigns are included, the eventual price tag will be more like $4–6 trillion. Similarly, Neta Crawford, who adds in expenditures in Pakistan and Syria as well as for homeland security, reckons the cost at $4.79 trillion, as of 2016.
Both wars were touted as essential for our national security. Yet amidst all the patriotic discourse and displays that followed 9/11, American leaders didn’t see fit to insist that taxpayers do their bit, even as American soldiers were asked to risk life and limb. What followed amounts to war by credit card.
It’s hard to pin down the proportion of the $4–6 trillion attributable to the Afghan war, so let's be conservative and assume a 30 percent share. That still amounts to between $1.2 and $1.8 trillion.
Now let’s consider effort defined as America’s share of the contribution of all states that have participated in the fight against the Taliban.
The Afghan war has been presented as a venture by a large coalition, and that’s true in some respects. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), created under a UN mandate in December 2001, eventually included 51 countries, with NATO assuming leadership in 2003. Initially, ISAF’s assignment was confined to Kabul and its environs. But between December 2003 and October 2006 it expanded in stages to the rest of the country, and included fighting the Taliban, training and advising Afghan units, and protecting the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).
In 2011, around which time ISAF reached its numerical peak, American accounted for 68 percent of its 132,203 troops. By 2016, the coalition’s numbers had fallen to 12,930, of which 7,006, or 54 percent, were American—not counting the additional US troops operating in Afghanistan outside NATO command. Moreover, in 2016, only six ISAF states (Britain, Georgia, Germany, Romania, Italy and Turkey) provided more than five hundred troops; twenty-seven contributed fewer than one hundred.
It does not diminish the efforts and sacrifices made by the troops of these other countries to recognize what the facts show: the United States has borne the brunt of the burden in Afghanistan. No statistic better illustrates this than the one pertaining to the ultimate military sacrifice. Of the 3,520 ISAF troops killed in Afghanistan so far, 2,384—68 percent—have been Americans.
Sometimes, the case for not leaving Afghanistan includes examples of economic and social achievements: various development-related projects, the increase in school enrollment, more medical clinics, and so on.
But the United States did not begin this campaign to promote economic and social advancement in Afghanistan. And even if one acknowledges that there have been some laudable results, the other side of the story bears telling. As a report issued by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted, calculated in dollars adjusted for inflation, economic assistance to Afghanistan ($109 billion) has already exceeded what was spent on the post-World War II Marshall Plan ($103.4 billion), which helped rebuild sixteen war-torn European countries.
On top of that, a significant amount of the money allocated for economic and military assistance in Afghanistan has been lost to fraud, theft, uncompleted or useless projects and others that amount to Potemkin villages—in all about $17 billion since 2009 according to audits done by SIGAR. The American side bears plenty of responsibility for the misuse of these funds, but it also reflects deeply rooted problems in Afghanistan, notably corruption (the country placed third from the bottom in Transparency International’s 2015 ranking) and ineffectual institutions.
Furthermore, the side effects of this massive inflow of foreign aid have not been positive. The appreciation of the Afghan currency has placed domestic businesses and locally made products at a price disadvantage relative to imports. That in turn has hampered job creation and in part also explains why Afghanistan badly trails many other developing countries in revenue collection as a percentage of GDP.
So whether measured in time spent, the proportion of the total burden shared, or the amount of blood and treasure expended, the American failure in Afghanistan cannot be attributed to insufficient effort or impatience.
President Obama recognizes this, as he does the futility of ramping up the effort and persisting indefinitely.
In 2011, by which time there were one hundred thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he announced a phased reduction that would culminate in winding down the war by the end of his term in 2017. By 2013, when the task of fighting the Taliban had been handed to the ANSF, the number of American troops had been reduced to forty-six thousand. By March 2015, it fell to 9,800. The president’s goal was to reach 5,800 by the end of 2017, but that target will now be missed given the gains made by the Taliban of late.
So the good news is that America’s Afghan war has been wound down since 2011. But what has this massive, extended effort achieved?
Certainly not the emergence of an effective Afghan state.
Neither under the current president, Ashraf Ghani, nor during the tenure of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, has there been anything resembling an effective government with national reach and local purchase. Moreover, it has become less cohesive and more fractious.
When the results of the 2014 presidential election that transferred power from Karzai to Ghani were announced, the opposition candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, immediately cried foul. He and his followers still believe they were cheated out of victory. (Of Pashtun and Tajik parentage, Abdullah gained the overwhelming majority of Tajik votes. But he also won support from Pashtuns—who constitute a plurality in Afghanistan—despite the advantage Ghani enjoyed as a Pashtun, as well as Uzbeks and Hazaras.)
To avert a political crisis, Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a power-sharing pact that year—never mind that the Afghan constitution provides no basis for its provisions. Abdullah was named “Chief Executive,” effectively second in command, a prime minister of sorts responsible for day-to-day management.
But the two men continue to undermine one another. Ghani sidelines Abdullah on key decisions, acting independently. Abdullah denounces him . . . and so it goes, without surcease. Just last month, Abdullah proclaimed Ghani “unfit” to rule and complained that the two rarely met. To call this a “national unity government” amounts to a cruel joke.
The Ghani-Abdullah accord was supposed to have paved the way for electoral reforms, local elections, and the convening of a Loya Jirga (a grand assembly of notables) to formalize and legitimize the post of Chief Executive—all by September-October 2016. None of this happened, nor will it because a political war rages at the pinnacle of Afghanistan’s political order.